Medieval Qatayif (قطائف)

This is an Andalusian take on what are called ‘Abbasid qaṭā’if‘, a filled crepe, by the author of the 13th-century cookery book. There are quite some similarities with today’s sweets by the same name, a Ramadan favourite in many countries.

The first thing to do is to make flour for the crepes with semolina, hot water, salt and yeast. The filling is made with sugar and almonds, perfumed with aromatic spices (cloves and spikenard) and rose water. After cooking the crepes, they are stuffed with the filling, and then sealed by dredging the edges in starch dissolved into water. The crepes are fried in almond oil and when they have turned golden. Set them aside to drain off the oil and then drench in rose syrup. Serve and enjoy!

According to the 11th-century pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, this kind of qaṭā’if is beneficial for those addicted to physical activity. It is very nourishing, but slows down digestion and causes stones in the urethra. But not to worry! These negative effects can be rectified by eating sweet and sour pomegranates or oxymel.  

Medieval chicken tharida (ثريدة)

This 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian recipe is made with chickens — and, if you have some available, capons –, as well as salt, olive oil, pepper, coriander, onions, and chickpeas. The dough is made with semolina, and is folded and smeared with clarified butter (ghee), just like for making musamman. The pastry is cut into pieces which are put in the top pot of a couscoussier, with the chicken being in the lower chamber. When everything is done, the chicken pieces, onion, and chickpeas are put on top of the pastry, with the edges of the serving dish being lined with boiled eggs, olives, and preserved limes. A sprinkle of cinnamon and ginger, and voilà, it’s ready to tuck in!

The author explains that this recipe is a Tunisian speciality, especially in the capital Tunis, and that it is often made at celebrations. It is very similar, of course, to the modern Moroccan dish rfissa (رفيسة), though this is usually prepared with lentils.

Andalusian fennel ka’k (كعك)

A wonderful savoury biscuit, made with a dough including flour, water, yeast, olive oil, and fennel seeds. Shape the dough into small rings and then bake. Very easy to make and delicious — what’s not to like? And if you think that the result reminds you of something, you’d be right; the biscuits are probably the medieval ancestor of the Italan fennel taralli!

Tuniso-Andalusian crepes (قطايف, qatayif)

This is the Andalusian variant of today’s qatayif, which is a folded crepe with a filling of cream or nuts especially associated with Ramadan all over the Muslim world. Recipes for this type of crepe can be found in a number of cookery books. The one recreated here is from a 13th-century Tuniso-Andalusian treatise. The typical feature — then as now — is that the batter is cooked on only one side.

The word qatayif — though the linguistically correct spelling is, in fact, qata’if (قطائف) — is the plural of qatifa (قطيفة), which denoted a kind of cover to be wrapped around the body when sleeping. This type of qatayif was called mushahhada, which is derived from shuhd, meaning ‘comb honey’.

It starts off with semolina, hot water, yeast and salt. Once you have a batter of the desired consistency, it is dropped into a pan in the form of small round crepes. Once little holes appear on the top, i.e. the uncooked side, remove them, and put in others. The batter can also be added with some salt and milk, if needed. Once you have finished the batch, serve the crepes in a bowl and pour on boiled honey mixed with clarified or fresh butter. Finally, sprinkle on pepper, cinnamon and sugar, and then enjoy!

The present-day qatayif are usually deep-fried after stuffing and then drenched in honey or syrup, though there is an unfried stuffed variety, known as qatayif asafiri (قطائف عصافيري), which translates as ‘the sparrows’ qatayif‘. The Andalusian preparation here is actually closest to the modern Moroccan pancake, the baghrir (بغرير), known in Tunisia as ghrayef (غرايف), which is eaten without a filling, just dipped in butter and honey.

Andalusian chickpea pancakes

This recipe from 13th-century Muslim Spain is a whimsical twist on a popular dish in that period and region, the isfiriyya (اسفريا), a kind of omelette. This particular variation is known as ‘counterfeit’ (مزوّرة, muzawwara), because it uses chickpea (gram) flour to make something that looks like isfiriyya. Gram flour is widely available now, but for the purists, this is how you can make it yourself from scratch (which is both cheaper and more fun, anyway!): pound chickpeas, remove the skins and grind. For the batter, add eggs and yeast, as well as some fennel seeds and other spices. The mixture is pan-fried into a thin cake, like a crepe. Serve with honey or a melted cheese mixture — an irresistable delicacy that will make you come back for seconds!

There is an interesting historical coda, as these pancakes appear to have received a second lease of life in Italy, where they are known as farinata, primarily associated with Liguria and Genoa, which is (wrongly!) credited as being its birthplace. It is also found in other Italian regions, under different names, like cecina (Tuscany), while along the French Riviera it appears as socca. Interestingly enough, its only modern avatar on the Iberian Peninsula is the national dish of Gibraltar, calentita.

Flaky laminated flatbread (مسمّنة, musammana)

This recipe is found in two Andalusian cookery books from the 13th century, and is one of relatively few to have survived almost unchanged in the form of the present-day Moroccan breakfast classic, msemmen, which is usually eaten with amlou (أملو, a blend of Argan oil and honey) or honey, and cheese. However, it also brings to mind a bread from further afield, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Indian paratha. It is also part of other North African cuisines; in Tunisia, it is known as mlaoui (ملاوي) and in Algeria by a variety of names depending on the region, including maarek (معارك), semniyette (سمنيات), and mtawi (مطاوي).

The Andalusian recipe starts with a dough made with fine white flour or semolina (for the recreation, a mixture of both was used), water and salt. The dough is rolled out very thinly and folded several times, with (melted) clarified butter (or ghee) being used to seal the edges (similar to the use of egg wash in modern patisserie). This ingredient actually gives the recipe its name, since musamman means ‘added with clarified butter (samn)’.

The laminated dough results in several thin flaky layers once the musamman is fried; hence, this kind of pastry was also known as muwarraq (مورّق), that is to say, ‘consisting of layers as thin as paper (waraq).’ For best result, the musammana are fried in clarified butter until golden brown. As they can be quite greasy, drain well before serving. The recipe recommends pouring on some (hot) honey and dusting with cinnamon and sugar — there you have it, heaven on a plate!

Mediaeval Moroccan honey bread pudding

Although the recipe appears in a 13th-century Andalusian cookery book, it was said to be a specialty of the people of Fez, which at the time was the capital of the Marinid sultanate, a Berber empire. This also explains the clearly Berber name of the sweet, tārfist (تارفست). It starts with flatbreads being baked in the oven before being crumbled up. The crumbs are then stirred into a mixture of water and honey, coloured with saffron. The end result is a paste which, after hardening, is shaped into a ring with some clarified butter (ghee) being poured into the hole in the middle. Serve with a sprinkling of sugar, cinnamon, spikenard, cloves, and taffy (fānīd, فانيد).

Egg-and-cheese dough bread

Ideally, this bread should be made in a traditional clay oven, known as the tannūr (تنور), but in case you don’t have access to one, feel free to use a good home oven. The dough is made with flour, dried cheese (for best results use drained cottage cheese), twenty eggs (yes, you read that right), and milk. The seasonings for the dough include fenugreek, mastic, anise, nigella, coriander, sesame and caraway seeds. Shape the dough into loaves and then bake. This bread is absolutely scrumptious and ideal to make last week’s sandwiches.

Stamped Andalusian bread

A 13th-century recipe for a bread you can either make with white flour or semolina. Add yeast, salt and warm water, and knead into loaves of your choosing ; for the recreation it was decided to make small round ones. Leave to rise before baking, and that’s it! In addition, they are stamped with home-made bread stamps. The stamping of food goes back to Antiquity and was also widely used in the medieval Muslim world, often to mark ownership (think of the famous apple in the Arabian Nights story of the Three Apples), or simply as a gimmick, when it could involve an animal, a saying, etc. (which would also be extended to tableware). Two of the stamps contain text: كُل هَنِيئًا (kul hani’an, ‘Eat and enjoy’, i.e. bon appétit) and وليمة السلطان (walīmat al-sultān, ‘the Sultan’s Feast’). The third and fourth stamps represent a gazelle and a geometric design, respectively.

Mediaeval Egyptian ravioli (شيشبرك, shishbarak)

This recipe, which is found in 13th- and 15th-century Egyptian cookery books, is the ancestor to the modern Lebanese favourite. Its name betrays a Turkish origin and it is likely that the dish was imported by Turkic tribes from the Central Asian steppes. The oldest recorded ravioli-type dish is the Chinese laowan from the third century CE. The Egyptian recipe requires dough to be made like tuṭmāj, from which round shapes are cut. After adding the stuffing (meat, spikenard, saffron, onion, mint), fold like ravioli and then boil in water. They are served with either yoghurt or macerated pomegranate seeds extract. It’s a good idea to make a good-sized batch so you have enough to freeze for future lunches!